A Dream of Love: Interpreting the Dream Ballet in OSF’s Oklahoma!

A Dream of Love: Interpreting the Dream Ballet in OSF’s Oklahoma! by Kelly BulkeleyPeeling away Freudian assumptions to reach a deeper human truth about the capacity to love.

A radiant new production of the musical Oklahoma! at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival re-interprets a classic American love story for contemporary audiences.  With bold innovations in casting, staging, and choreography, the OSF production differs in many ways from the 1943 Broadway stage version and the 1955 Oscar-winning film.  Far from changing the story, these innovations amplify and extend its original, joyful spirit.

This is especially true with “the Dream Ballet,” the elaborate dance sequence that ends Act I.  Created by the legendary Agnes de Mille, the Dream Ballet has become an icon in the history of American musicals.  The new OSF production, directed by Bill Rauch and choreographed by Ann Yee, intensifies the emotional energy of this central moment in the play and deepens our psychological insight into the feelings and motivations of the characters.

At the risk of theatrical heresy, I will say the OSF production of the Dream Ballet is better than the original. It goes further in illuminating the emotional heart of this dramatized nightmare, and it peels away the original version’s mistaken psychoanalytic assumptions about female sexuality to reveal a deeper human truth about the capacity to love.

A Dream of Love: Interpreting the Dream Ballet in OSF’s Oklahoma! by Kelly BulkeleyA quick recap of the plot: Set in the Oklahoma territory in 1906, just before official statehood, the story revolves around two love triangles.  In one, a cowboy (Curly) and a farmhand (Jud) vie for the affections of a farmer’s daughter (Laurey).  In the other, cowboy Will Parker and Ali Hakim, a Persian traveling salesman, are both involved with Ado Annie, one of Laurey’s girlfriends.

The OSF production makes two significant changes in casting.  Curly is played by a woman, Tatiana Wechsler, and Ado Annie is now Ado Andy, played by a man, Jonathan Luke Stevens.  The love triangles are the same, but the gender dynamics have changed, and the Dream Ballet changes, too.

The new production makes it easier to recognize that Laurey’s dream is not about a romantic choice between Curly and Jud.  The preceding scenes make it clear that Laurey only agreed to go to the Box Social with Jud in order to spite Curly (“I did it because Curly was so fresh”), and she confesses to Aunt Eller that she’s deeply scared of the brooding, resentful Jud: “Sumpin’ wrong inside him, Aunt Eller… I know what I’m talkin’ about.” In the OSF version, Laurey’s romantic desires are obviously inclined toward the female Curly, which doubly emphasizes her sexual disinterest in Jud.

What, then, is Laurey dreaming about, if not a choice of Jud versus Curly?

The dream begins with a playfully sensual dance, in which Laurey revels in the pure freedom of movement and feeling that open up to her within this imaginal space.  A spotlight tracks her as she dances and floats across the stage, casting an enormous, graceful shadow on the screen behind.  Then Curly enters the dream and joins her dance, along with other shadow spirits who further enliven the increasingly romantic atmosphere.  The dancing gradually morphs into a beautiful wedding procession.  But just as Laurey is ready to pledge her vows to Curly, Jud steps between them.

Everything suddenly darkens, as Jud takes control of the dream space and everyone’s behavior within it. He seizes Laurey, casts Curly aside, and forces all the other characters to conform to his personal desires, desires that have been stoked by the pornographic pictures in his smoke house.  The women from these pictures now enter into the dream and move around the stage like harlequin puppets, mimicking sexual acts with a robotic lack of emotion.

The most striking innovation in the OSF version of the Dream Ballet occurs at this point, when Jud commands that two characters with non-traditional gender presentations be forced to switch their clothing, so they look like a “normal” man and woman.

Laurey seems utterly helpless as Jud imposes his will on her dreamscape, turning it into a nightmare of paralyzing weakness and vulnerability.  When Jud rises up against Curly and violently attacks her, pounding her with wooden logs and punching her mercilessly, Laurey is terrified that Curly might actually die under the assault.

At that moment, Laurey’s agency suddenly returns.  She steps between them, letting Jud know she will accept him if he will let Curly live.  Jud agrees, the violence ceases, and the dream ends.

If, as I’ve suggested, the dream is not about Laurey’s romantic indecision between Curly and Jud, then perhaps their presence in her dream should be viewed in less literal terms.  Perhaps their significance is more symbolic or metaphorical in meaning.

A good way of testing that idea is to apply the “Gestalt” approach of psychologist Frederick Perls (1893-1970).  Perls taught that one way to explore dreams is to treat them as inner theatrical productions, with every element of the dream—each object, setting, and character—representing some metaphorical aspect of the dreamer’s own personality.  The dramatic conflicts in dreams reveal parts of ourselves that are immature, alienated, or not yet integrated. The better we understand these conflicts, the more fully we can grow into our innate potentials for health and wholeness.

This is just one way to look at dreams, and many others could be validly applied here.  But let’s see where a Gestalt approach leads.

For Laurey, her conflicts in the play revolve around one of the most frightening experiences of human life: falling in love.  If she yields to her feelings for Curly, Laurey will have to let down her guard and emotionally open herself more than she ever has before.  She will become a new interpersonal being, a sexually mature adult, an intimate romantic partner.  To fall in love is to undergo a total transformation of the self.  The first scenes of the play make it clear that Laurey is, indeed, falling deeply in love with Curly, who just as clearly loves her back.  But for some reason, Laurey cannot openly express her feelings.  What’s holding her back?

This is where the Gestalt approach may help.  Using this method, we look for aspects of Laurey’s personality that can be described metaphorically as an “inner Jud” threatening to destroy her budding love with Curly.  And here, I believe, we come to an intriguing notion.  At least twice in the early parts of the play, Laurey behaves in quite Jud-like ways.

First, Laurey’s response to Curly’s songs to her (“The Surrey with the Fringe on Top” and “People Will Say We’re in Love”) follows the same emotional trajectory as Jud’s response to Curly’s song to him (“Poor Jud”)—their initial enchantment with Curly’s alluring visions turning to bitterness and disillusionment at how far the visions fall from reality.  Laurey berates Curly after the “Surrey” song, saying “Why’d you come around here with yer stories and lies, gittin’ me all worked up that-a-way?”, before furiously slamming the door on her.  Laurey’s angry distrust blocks her from accepting the uncertain future of a romantic relationship with Curly, just as Jud’s angry distrust prevents him from forming any kind of relationship at all.

Second, when Laurey accepts Jud’s invitation to the Box Social, her goal is not to spend more time with Jud, but rather to provoke a jealous reaction in Curly.  Whether intentionally or not, Laurey tries to manipulate both of them to suit her personal needs and desires.  She treats Jud as an impersonal tool, and Curly as a passive object for her to control.  This is ultimately Jud’s deepest character flaw: his obsession with dehumanizing fantasies of power and control that seem to fulfill his wishes but in fact only make it harder for him to become truly intimate with real humans.

None of this is to suggest that Laurey is exactly like Jud in all ways, or that we should feel more sympathy for his violent behavior.  Rather, this Gestalt-informed approach suggests the Dream Ballet is a metaphorical vision of why exactly Laurey is having so much difficulty letting herself fall in love: She’s too much like Jud. To enter into a truly mutual and loving relationship with Curly, Laurey must first deal with the problematic qualities she shares with Jud.  As her dream vividly portrays, these qualities will kill any chance of a real relationship with Curly.

Laurey seems unable to stop Jud’s attacks on Curly in the dream, until she makes the active, conscious decision to embrace Jud.  Again, this does not signal Laurey’s romantic preference for Jud.  In a Gestalt view, this means that Laurey realizes in the dream the only way to save her love for Curly is to take responsibility for her own Jud-like qualities and grow into a larger self that can encompass these energies without being overwhelmed or dominated by them.  This greater emergent self is prefigured in the OSF production with Laurey’s magnified dancing shadow, a dark but graceful harbinger of growth to come.

To sum it up in Shakespearean terms, Laurey comes to a realization similar to that of Prospero at the end of The Tempest: “This thing of darkness I acknowledge mine.” (V.i.275-276)

Unfortunately, when Laurey awakens she immediately (mis)interprets the dream in a literalistic way, as instructing her to choose Jud over Curly. It takes the second act of the play for Laurey to recognize her mistake and learn how to express her true feelings.  She finally agrees to join Curly in marriage, and she rallies the strength to confront the “outer” Jud and tell him he’s fired.  In both instances, Laurey speaks with greater confidence, maturity, and passion than ever before.  She has indeed grown to become a newly conscious being, sure of her own expanded power, and yet willing to open herself fully and lovingly to another.

I would offer this same argument about the meaning of the Dream Ballet in the original production of Oklahoma!, but it would be a tougher case to make.  This is why I say the OSF production is better than the original, which was overlaid with so many Freudian preconceptions that Laurey’s deeper conflict is harder to appreciate.

According to Freud, whose psychoanalytic theories were enormously influential in the mid-20th century United States, dreams are fantasy fulfillments of unconscious wishes, usually sexual, that remain unfulfilled in waking life.  The Dream Ballet seems to fit this theory perfectly: Laurey naturally desires a sexual relationship with a real man, not a boy, and Jud’s postcard girls symbolize her own repressed erotic wishes.  Laurey’s mind may prefer Curly, but her loins favor the hot, fiery Jud. To resolve this conflict and fulfill her unconscious wish, the dream sets it up so that Laurey’s embrace of Jud appears to be a morally virtuous self-sacrifice, rather than the lustfully satisfying fantasy it truly is.  Both ego and id get what they want.

In the original staging, with Jud and Curly cast as men, such an interpretation makes a superficial kind of sense, especially with Curly having a gun in the dream that won’t shoot, a classic Freudian symbol of male impotence.  And yet this interpretation depends on a theory about “hidden” female sexual desire that is problematic, to say the least.  It suggests Laurey’s resistance to Jud is actually repressed unconscious desire.  When she says no to him, she’s really wanting to say yes.

As I’ve noted above, there is nothing in the text to justify the idea that Laurey is romantically attracted to Jud.  Only if Freud’s mistaken ideas about unconscious female sexuality are smuggled into the story can Laurey’s character and dream be interpreted in this way.

The OSF production liberates Laurey from these psychoanalytic shackles and brings forth a more authentic dimension of meaning in her dream that was always there, but not as evident in the original version.  With Curly cast as a woman, it becomes clearer than ever that Laurey’s deepest conflict is not simply about sex, but about love—the frightening, exhilarating, and transformative experience of falling in love with another person.

 

Note: this post was first published in Psychology Today, May 2, 2018.

The Horrors of the Dream Ballet in “Oklahoma!”

The Horrors of the Dream Ballet in "Oklahoma!" by Kelly BulkeleyA brilliant exploration of the dark psychological depths of sexual desire appears in an unlikely place—a country musical from the 1940’s.

Oklahoma! was the first collaboration of Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II, the duo who went on to write many of Broadway’s most famous mid-century musicals.  A new production of Oklahoma! at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival promises to stimulate new interest in this classic theatrical work through innovative casting, staging, and choreography from director Bill Rauch and choreographer Ann Yee.

Oklahoma! offers a surprisingly complex portrait of dreaming, desire, and the unconscious mind, and I plan to write a more detailed appraisal once the OSF production opens in April.  To set the stage, as it were, I wanted to start with an overview of the traditional production, which opened in 1943 and has since been performed in thousands of other venues in the US and around the world.  An Academy Award-winning movie adaptation appeared in 1955.

Set in the Oklahoma territory in 1906, just before official statehood, the story revolves around two love triangles.  In one, a cowboy (Curly) and a farmhand (Jud) vie for the affections of a farmer’s daughter (Laurey).  In the other, cowboy Will Parker and a Persian traveling salesman named Ali Hakim are both involved with Ado Annie, one of Laurey’s friends.

The play both opens and closes with the joyfully optimistic song “Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin’,” and the action unfolds in the space created between those two happy moments of dawning light.

In the very center of the play, at the end of the Act I, there is a dark and very elaborate dream sequence, “The Dream Ballet,” intended to express Laurey’s conflicted feelings about Curley and Jud.  Other plays and musicals before Oklahoma! had included scenes of dancing framed as dreams, but no one had ever pushed the dream theme into such bold psychological territory, with so much sophistication and artistry in the choreography.  Much of the credit goes to Agnes de Mille, the original choreographer, who helped Rogers and Hammerstein craft what became one of the most famous scenes in the play.

The Horrors of the Dream Ballet in "Oklahoma!" by Kelly Bulkeley

In the scene just before the ballet, Jud is alone and brooding about his sexual frustration.  The pornographic “postcards” in his room excite his fantasies (“And a dream starts a-dancin’ in my head”), but ultimately leave him feeling empty, deceived, and even angrier than before.  He finally declares, “I ain’t gonna dream ‘bout her arms no more!” and sets off to claim Laurey for his own.

Laurey, meanwhile, sits down in the shade of a tree in her yard and drinks a special sleeping potion (“the Elixir of Egypt”) she purchased from Ali Hakim, hoping it will “make up my mind fer me” and help her “to see things clear.”  She slowly nods off, while a group of neighboring girls sing a lullaby about flying from her dreams into the arms of the man she truly loves.  The girls disappear, Laurey falls into a deep sleep, and the dream begins.

Each of the characters in the main love triangle has a kind of dream-world counterpart or avatar, a professional dancer who performs their roles during the 17-minute sequence.  It begins well enough, with Laurey dancing “ecstatically” with Curly.  After many vigorous upward thrusts and arousing leaps through the air, they find themselves at a wedding, walking down the aisle, about to take their vows.  But at the last moment it is Jud, not Curly, who appears in front of her.  Laurey is terrified as Jud and the risqué women from his postcards take over the dream.  Curly has a gun and tries to shoot Jud, but the gun has no effect.  Jud attacks Curly and starts choking him to death.  Laurey begs Jud to stop, and promises to go with him if he will spare Curly’s life.  Jud agrees, and takes Laurey with him, as she bids a “heartbroken” farewell to Curly.

At this moment, Jud walks up to the tree in her yard.  “Wake up, Laurey,” he says, “It’s time to start fer the party.”  Just then Curly walks up to the house, too, hoping she will choose him instead.  Laurey, now fully awake, is seized with panic:

“Remembering the disaster of her recent dream, she avoids its reality by taking Jud’s arm and going with him, looking wistfully back at Curly with the same sad eyes that her ballet counterpart had on her exit. Curly stands alone, puzzled, dejected and defeated, as the curtain falls.”

This marks the end of Act I.

The provocative content and staging of the Dream Ballet was originally envisioned by Hammerstein to be “bizarre, imaginative and amusing, and never heavy.” (Carter 129)  De Mille, however, wanted to shift the tone; she suggested bringing Jud’s postcard girls into the action, and making the whole thing darker and gloomier.  Virtually all musicals try to send their audiences into intermission on a happy, buoyant note; the Dream Ballet of Oklahoma!  has the diametrically opposite effect, which de Mille felt would be entirely appropriate for Laurey’s character and situation at this point in the story.

In a later interview, de Mille said she pushed Hammerstein to make the dream sequence more emotionally realistic, more like the kinds of anxiety dreams that girls and young women actually experience: “Girls don’t dream about the circus. They dream about horrors. And they dream dirty dreams.” (Carter 123)

Thus, the core moment in one of America’s most beloved works of musical theater is a violently realistic sexual nightmare.

The Dream Ballet is an amazing work of art.  It is also a remarkably insightful portrait of the dreaming mind.  For those who study dreams, Oklahoma! raises a number of intriguing questions that can shed new light on the play, its cultural impact, and the dreaming imagination.  I will wait to see the OSF production in late April before saying more, but these are some of the anticipatory questions and ideas dancing through my mind:

Was Agnes de Mille right, as a matter of empirical fact, that girls have a tendency to dream about “horrors” and “dirty” topics?  What might modern research on the dream patterns of young women reveal about the unconscious dynamics of Laurey’s dilemma?

Has Laurey unknowingly performed a ritual of dream incubation?  She drinks the “Elixir of Egypt,” sleeps in a special place, focuses her mind on a particular question as she drifts off, and then has a dream relating to her question.  That’s pretty much the definition of a dream incubation ritual (as per Kimberley Patton.)

Is Laurey’s dream a threat simulation, along the lines of what Antti Revonsuo has proposed?  Revonsuo focused on recurrent chasing nightmares as an instance of dreams that simulate a possible threat and rehearse our response to it, so we’re better prepared in waking life if that threat should actually arise.  Laurey has a dream of Jud threatening to kill Curly, which is indeed a realistic appraisal of the dangers in her waking life.

Is her dream a sexual wish-fulfillment, as Sigmund Freud would say?  In 1940’s New York City, it’s a fair guess the Oklahoma! creative team knew about psychoanalysis and its theories about unconscious sexual desires.  Laurey certainly has a more intense and erotic interaction with Curly in dreaming than she ever does in waking.  The dream’s sexual charge only grows with the appearance of Jud’s postcard girls, who stir up even more libidinal energy, with less romance and more raw carnal desire.  And poor Curly with his limp gun…

Is Jud a shadow symbol for Laurey and the whole Oklahoma community, as Carl Jung might suggest?  From the very beginning of the play Jud is portrayed as dark, crude, rough, hairy, animal-like, stupid, and inarticulate.  He lives alone in a “smokehouse,” seething with unfulfilled instinctual urges.  He could be seen as a radical Other, in the symbolic lineage of Lucifer, Caliban, Gollum, and Darth Vader, the embodiment of all the darkness that is not allowed into the light of conscious awareness, and thus banished to the depths of the unconscious.

Does Laurey misinterpret her dream?  How exactly is her action upon awakening (choosing Jud over Curly) justified by what she has dreamed?  In both fiction and real life, people who instantly interpret their dreams usually get it wrong.  The quick response often overlooks deeper, more important meanings that the conscious mind may be all to ready to move past.  (I call this “the Odyssean fallacy.”)

Does Jud misinterpret his dream?  Same question—why does Jud think the action he takes (aggressively demanding Laurey’s affection) is justified by his arousing yet frustrating dreams of the postcard girls?  What might he be overlooking?

Finally, how will the OSF creative team reimagine this classic work for a new century and a new America?

I can’t wait to see!

 

Reference: Tim Carter, Oklahoma!: The Making of an American Musical, Yale University Press, 2007.

Dreams and Shakespeare: The Merry Wives of Windsor

Jealous paranoia cannot distinguish between dreaming and waking in one of Shakespeare’s bawdiest works.

There are several reasons why “The Merry Wives of Windsor” has generally been considered one of Shakespeare’s minor plays.  It’s an absurd, bawdy farce set in an English country village around 1600, bereft of any epic characters, grand locales, or soaring lyrical speeches.  Revolving around the rakish antics of Sir John Falstaff, the play comes across as an entertaining trifle filled with sexual puns, slapstick comedy, and a variety of ridiculous schemes, disguises, and deceptions.  This may all be true, yet it overlooks an interesting element of darkness in The Merry Wives, an element that elicits the only references to dreaming in the play.

Master Ford is the husband of one of the two wives of the title, and there is very little merriment about him.  On the contrary, he stands out among the other characters for the intensity of his one driving emotion—jealousy.  Master Ford also stands out for his moral rigidity and insufferable pompousness, but it’s the jealousy that really defines him and motivates his behavior.  He says as much in a brief soliloquy, after meeting the other wife, Mistress Page, and hearing her talk about Falstaff.  Master Ford immediately concludes that both his wife and Master Page’s wife are having romantic affairs with Falstaff, and he criticizes Master Page for failing to keep close enough watch over his faithless spouse: “Has Page any brains? Hath he any eyes? Hath he any thinking? Sure, they sleep; he hath no use of them” (III.ii.26-28).

Master Ford decides that, despite other people’s doubts, he will wake everyone up by revealing the true sinfulness of these “revolted wives.”  He will appear suddenly at his house and catch the lecherous Falstaff in the act: “There I shall find Falstaff. I shall be rather praised for this than mocked, for it is as positive as the earth is firm that Falstaff is there. I will go” (III.ii.42-45).

Dreams and Shakespeare: The Merry Wives of Windsor by Kelly BulkeleyIn the next scene a supremely confident Master Ford brings a group of companions to his house to apprehend Falstaff.  His wife, in the midst of sending out the dirty laundry, denies that Sir John is there.  Master Ford contemplates the laundry basket, which is about to be sent out for “buck-washing” (a traditional means of laundering clothes by soaking and rinsing them repeatedly with lye, ash, or urine), and utters some strange lines: “Buck? I would I could wash myself of the buck! Buck, buck, buck! Ay, buck; I warrant you, buck—and of the season too, it shall appear” (III.iii.155-157).

Several sexual allusions are compressed into Master Ford’s odd little speech.  Unfortunately for him, while he is fixated on the multiple meanings of “buck,” the laundry basket containing the hidden Falstaff is taken out of the house.  Now Master Page turns to his companions and makes a bold declaration: “Gentlemen, I have dreamed tonight. I’ll tell you my dream. Here, here, here be my keys. Ascend my chambers; search, seek, find out. I warrant we’ll unkennel the fox” (III.iii.158-162).

His use of “dream” here, the first mention of the term in the play, is meant ironically.  It seems unlikely that Master Ford is referencing an actual dream; rather, he’s playing with the term, to enhance the impressiveness of his ultimate victory.  Master Ford is framing what he believes will be his triumphant discovery of Falstaff as a prophetic dream: last night he dreamed of something that will be revealed to his companions when they find Sir John, the implication being that Master Ford foresaw the infidelity in his dream, and now his companions will see tangible proof that his dream has come true and he was right all along.

But there are at least a couple layers of deeper irony to his “dream” that Master Ford does not seem to recognize.  First, his companions do not find Falstaff in the house, so his allegedly prophetic dream fails to come true as he so grandly predicted it would.  Second, the certainty he feels about this dream, and about his wife’s sinfulness, is actually based on his own vain and substance-free fantasy that he assumes is as solid as the earth itself.  And third, if he had not been so absorbed in his resentful musings (“buck, buck, buck!”), he might have noticed that Falstaff was in fact right in front of him; so Master Ford’s dream did come true, but he was too captivated by his jealousy to realize it.  By making the self-aggrandizing claim that he had received a miraculous dream revelation of Falstaff’s illicit presence in his house, Master Ford only magnifies the humiliating mockery he feared would be the result of his efforts to unmask the sinners all around him.

Perhaps Master Ford would have let it go at this point, but then he hears Falstaff (who is himself thoroughly deluded about what’s actually happening) brag that he has already enjoyed the delights of Mistress Page and is planning to return to her house as soon as possible.  This seems to confirm Master Ford’s worst fears, and his jealousy heats to a full boil.  In another brooding soliloquy right after Falstaff leaves, Master Page repudiates sleep and dreaming and forces himself to face what he thinks is a damnable reality: “Hum! Ha! Is this a vision? Is this a dream? Do I sleep? Master Ford, awake; awake, Master Ford! There’s a hole made in your best coat, Master Ford!”  (III.v.137-140)

Again, the irony is that by forcing himself to “awake,” he is actually descending even further into his jealousy-fueled fantasy.  By rejecting dreaming, he is rejecting something that could in fact provide him with accurate insight into the perception-warping effects of his violent passions and emotional insecurities.

The production of “The Merry Wives of Windsor” I saw recently at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival featured the actress K.T. Vogt as Falstaff, a brilliant piece of casting that breathed new life into the old rogue and his errant codpiece.  Master Ford was played by Rex Young, an OSF veteran whose evocation of fragile male pride was strong enough to drive the plot forward, but not so strong as to overwhelm the delightful antics of everyone else.  The aesthetic design of the OSF production was shaped by the giddy, gaudy 80’s, with pastel clothing and bouncy music, and in Master Ford’s second soliloquy, which ends with an angry pledge to fight back against his tormentors (“I’ll be horn-mad”), the musical accompaniment is “Psycho Killer” by the Talking Heads—a perfect touch for the dramatic moment.  Master Ford is indeed committing himself to the darkest of purposes, and yet he does so to the beat of an irresistibly danceable song.

Perhaps “The Merry Wives” seems like a minor work because the shadow elements are limited to one character and never become so intense that they overwhelm the lighter elements of love, laughter, and play.  But those darker energies are there, and are a significant part of the story.  Here as elsewhere in Shakespeare, the seemingly illusory experience of dreaming provides a portal into hidden realms of emotion and desire that reflect the deepest and most honest realities of human life.

The final scene of the play is a festive forest spectacle in which the main characters disguise themselves as a troop of mischievous fairies and “moonshine revelers” in order to scare the poor Falstaff out of his wits.  This scene includes an evocation of sleep and dreaming that seems to reflect contemporary folk beliefs about the magical wonders and dangers of the night.  When Falstaff sees what he thinks are fairies coming, he falls to the ground and covers his eyes, because of the legend that fairies will kill those who look upon them without permission.  A moment later the first fairy (the parson Sir Hugh Evans) arrives and issues the following command to the other fairies:

“Where’s Bede? Go you, and where you find a maid

That ere she sleep has thrice her prayers said,

Raise up the organs of her fantasy,

Sleep she as sound as careless infancy.

But those as sleep and think not on their sins,

Pinch them, arms, legs, backs, shoulders, sides, and shins.” (V.v.52-57)

Some versions of Shakespeare have “Bead” instead of “Bede.”  To me, “Bede” makes more sense as a reference to the 8th c. monk Bede and his famous work of astronomy The Reckoning of Time.  In Shakespeare’s time Bede was still considered an authority on lunar events and the impact of the moon on earthly life.  I don’t know what “Where’s Bead?” would mean in this context (there’s no reference to a character with that name), but “Where’s Bede?” could mean something like, “Where’s our authority on the moon, because this is certainly a realm under a strong lunar influence?”  It’s the kind of thing an Elizabethan might typically say upon first entering a beautiful moonlit glade at night.

The rest of the passage suggests a sharp religious dichotomy: prayers and spiritual humility can protect against fairy attacks and prompt restful sleep and inspiring dreams (“raise up the organs of her fantasy”), while people who do not pray or “think on their sins” will suffer sharp pains all over their bodies during sleep. This scene has strong echoes of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” written a few years earlier, and of other plays in which sleep and dreaming are presented as eternal battlegrounds between competing supernatural beings fighting over our souls.  This may or may not have been Shakespeare’s personal view, but it does reflect widely held beliefs among his culture and the members of his audience.

Dreams and Shakespeare: Henry IV Part II

Dreams and Shakespeare: Henry IV Part II by Kelly BulkeleyTo be a king, one must give up sleep and dreams in favor of the ruling duties of waking life.

This is the grim truth that animates much of the action in Henry IV Part II.  The second chapter of prince Hal’s transformation into King Henry V contains two of the most vivid references to sleep and dreaming in all of Shakespeare’s works.  Hal’s father, King Henry IV, suffers from an agonizing inability to sleep, prompting him to exclaim the famous line, “Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown.”  At the climax of the play, the newly crowned King Henry V publicly humiliates and cruelly disavows his old friend Sir John Falstaff, comparing him to a foolish dream—“but, being awaked, I do despise my dream.”

Below are all the references to sleep and dreams in the play, with brief comments.  The play is currently in production at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland, Oregon.  The outstanding cast includes Jeffrey King as King Henry IV, Daniel Jose Molina as prince Hal, and G. Valmont Thomas as Falstaff.

 

I.ii.45

Falstaff: “Well, he may sleep in security; for he hath the horn of abundance, and the lightness of his wife shines through it…”

Sir John Falstaff is appearing here for the first time in the play, and he immediately becomes angry that a tailor will not accept his “security,” i.e. his pledge to pay his debts.  Falstaff cannot provide the security the tailor demands, so instead the old rogue pivots to a different meaning of “security,” insulting the tailor by suggesting he’s a cuckold (with horns), unaware of his wife’s infidelity (lightness) while he sleeps in apparent safety and ease.

Dreams and Shakespeare: Henry IV Part II by Kelly Bulkeley

I.ii.111-113

Falstaff: “This apoplexy, as I take it, is a kind of lethargy, an’t please your lordship, a kind of sleeping in the blood, a whoreson tingling.”

The Chief Justice has just entered the scene, and he demands to speak with Sir John about his criminal behavior.  Falstaff avoids the question by asking the Chief Justice about the health of the king, Henry IV, who is reportedly ill with “apoplexy.”  The king has been losing his vitality and energy through a “kind of sleeping in the blood,” and Falstaff wants the Chief Justice to focus on what will happen when the king is dead—prince Hal, the good friend of Sir John, will ascend to the throne, and he will not look kindly on the mistreatment of his closest pals.  Falstaff’s medical diagnosis of the king is a thinly-veiled threat against the Chief Justice.

I.ii.153-154

Chief Justice: “But since all is well, keep it so. Wake not a sleeping wolf.”

The Chief Justice does not press the point, but he gives Falstaff a warning of his own.  The proverb suggests that a prudent person will recognize the benefit of allowing a violent beast to remain in peaceful slumber.

II.i.76-77

Hostess: “He hath eaten me out of house and home; he hath put all my substance into that fat belly of his. But I will have some of it out again, or I will ride thee o’nights like the mare.”

Falstaff: “I think I am as like to ride the mare, if I have any vantage of ground to get up.”

Mistress Quickly, the hostess of the tavern, complains to the Chief Justice about the money Falstaff owes her and refuses to pay.  Having no other recourse, she threatens to harass the old rogue in his sleep like a nightmare.  Sir John deflects her anger by transforming the nightmare curse into a bawdy invitation.

Dreams and Shakespeare: Henry IV Part II by Kelly Bulkeley

II.ii.86-88

Bardolph: “Away, you whoreson upright rabbit, away!”

Page: “Away, you rascally Althaea’s dream, away!”

Prince: “Instruct us, boy; what dream, boy?”

Page: “Marry, my lord, Althaea dreamt she was delivered of a firebrand; and therefore I call him her dream.”

Prince: “A crown’s worth of good interpretation. There ‘tis, boy.”

This scene starts with prince Hal and his disreputable companion Poins discussing the king’s illness, and Hal’s unwillingness to show his true feelings.  Then Bardolph and the young Page arrive, two bumbling fools with a message from Falstaff.  Poins makes fun of Bardolph’s red face (discolored from drink), and the Page reveals that Bardolph was recently with a prostitute.  The furious Bardolph chases after the Page, who calls him “Althaea’s dream.” Prince Hal takes interest in this, and asks what the boy means.  The Page responds by mistakenly combining two classic mythological tales.  Althaea was an ancient Greek queen who killed her own son by burning a brand (piece of wood) that, so it was prophesied at his birth, would cause his death if ever consumed by fire. Hecuba was a Trojan queen who had a dream while pregnant that she gives birth to a firebrand; the child she bore from that pregnancy, her son Paris, was the impetuous warrior who abducted Helen, sparking the war that led to the destruction of their city.  Several other Shakespearean plays make accurate references to the story of Hecuba, so it seems likely the Page’s conflation of the two stories is intentional and not a mistake of Shakespeare’s.  Does prince Hal know or care if the Page’s mythology is accurate?  Maybe not, but the prince does appreciate a fine display of wit.  Hal plays along with the dream theme by offering the Page a small payment (the crown) for the pleasing interpretation, just as if he were consulting a diviner in the marketplace.

II.iv.200-201

Pistol: “What! Shall we have incision?  Shall we imbrue? [Snatching up his sword.]

Then death rock me asleep, abridge my doleful days!”

The Ancient Pistol, one of the rowdy soldiers who hang around the tavern, gets in a drunken brawl with Falstaff.  The notion of death as a kind of sleep is pervasive in Shakespeare, and in classical mythology.

II.iv.382-386

Falstaff: “Farewell, hostess. Farewell, Doll. You see, my good wenches, how men of merit are sought after. The undeserver may sleep when the man of action is called on. Farewell, good wenches.”

Sir John was just about to go to bed with his female companions, but he is suddenly informed that a dozen of the king’s men are waiting at the door for him.  Falstaff realizes he can no longer escape the military service that a nobleman like himself must perform.  He thus turns necessity into a virtue and presents himself to his lady friends as a man of extraordinary importance whose sage presence the king desires immediately.  The moral contrast between he draws between a virtuous man of action like himself and a slothful “undeserver” is undercut by the fact that Falstaff was just about to retire for the evening, until forced by a troop of soldiers to do otherwise.

III.i.4-17, 26-31

King: “How many thousands of my poorest subjects

Are at this hour asleep! O sleep, O gentle sleep,

Nature’s soft nurse, how have I frightened thee,

That thou no more will weigh my eyelids down,

And steep my senses in forgetfulness?

Why rather, sleep, liest thou in smoky cribs,

Upon uneasy pallets stretching thee,

And hush’d with buzzing night-flies to thy slumber,

Than in the perfum’d chambers of the great,

Under the canopies of costly state,

And lull’d with sound of sweetest melody?

O thou dull god, why liest thou with the vile

In loathsome beds, and leav’st the kingly couch

A watch-case or a common ‘larum-bell?…

Canst thou, O partial sleep, give thy repose

To the wet sea-boy in an hour so rude;

And in the calmest and most stillest night,

With all appliances and means to boot,

Deny it to a king? Then, happy low, lie down!

Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown.”

The next scene occurs in the palace, where the aging king Henry IV appears “in his nightgown,” desperately desiring to sleep and yet unable to do so.  Falstaff’s fantasy of the wakeful “man of action” is belied by the painful reality of mighty ruler who is strangely impotent in the domain of sleep.  Alone with his insomnia, the king broods over the baffling irony of sleep bestowing its gifts to the lowliest of people in the worst of circumstances, and yet denying any comfort or rest to the greatest and most powerful man of all.  These ruminations prompt the king to utter perhaps the most famous line in the play, an honest reckoning with the cost he has paid for the power he seized and hopes to pass on to his son.

IV.ii.37-42

Archbishop: “I sent your Grace

The parcels and particulars of our grief,

The which hath been scorn shov’d from the court,

Whereon this hydra son of war is born;

Whose dangerous eyes my well be charm’d asleep

With grant of our most just and right desires…”

The Archbishop and the other rebels against the king have met to negotiate with his son, prince John.  The Archbishop diplomatically suggests that the monstrous violence of war, which once set loose can grow horribly out of control, may be “charm’d asleep” if the king will simply grant their legitimate grievances.  The prince seems to agree.  But it soon turns out he was in fact charming the Archbishop; as soon as the rebel troops are released, the prince seizes the Archbishop and other rebellion leaders and sends them to their execution.

IV.iv.65-68

King: “The blood weeps from my heart when I do shape,

In forms imaginary, th’unguided days

And rotten times that you shall look upon

When I am sleeping with my ancestors.”

On the verge of death, the king sadly anticipates the wasteful, unruly behavior of his son Hal, who will inherit the crown once the king is gone.  Even when he is on the brink of succumbing to the eternal sleep of death, the king cannot help worrying about the world he will leave behind in the hands of his degenerate child.

IV.iv.135-138

Gloucester: “The people fear me, for they do observe

Unfathered heirs and loathly births of nature.

The seasons change their manners, as the year

Had found some months asleep and leaped them over.”

The ailing king’s closest allies gather in the palace and speak darkly about what will happen next.  The Duke of Gloucester describes strange omens and worrisome changes in the weather that seem to foretell conflict ahead.  Here is another metaphorical contrast between sleeping passivity and waking action.

IV.iv.20-21

Warwick: “Not so much noise, my lords. Sweet Prince, speak low;

The King your father is dispos’d to sleep.”

Now, at the very end of his reign and his life, sleep briefly returns to the king.

IV.iv.26-30, 39-42

Prince: “Why doth the crown lie there upon his pillow,

Being so troublesome a bedfellow?

O polish’d perturbation! Golden care!

That keep’st the ports of slumber open wide

To many a watchful night! Sleep with it now!…

My gracious lord! My father!

This sleep is sound indeed; this is a sleep

That from this golden rigol hath divorc’d

So many English kings.”

Prince Hal enters the bed chamber of his father, where the golden crown sits on a pillow next to the slumbering monarch.  Hal is initially puzzled by this, since he knows the bitter impact of this band of metal on his father’s sleep.  But then the prince thinks his father has slipped into an eternal sleep, and he resolves himself to honor his father’s noble death by taking up the crown and devoting his life to upholding their royal lineage.

IV.iv.73-74,

King: “Is he so hasty that he doth suppose

My sleep my death?…

For this the foolish overcareful fathers

Have broke their sleep with thoughts, their brains with care…”

After the prince leaves his father’s bed chamber, the king briefly awakens and worries that Hal has greedily snatched the crown before the king is even dead.  This fear sets up their final deathbed reconciliation, and Hal pledges that once he becomes King it will be time “to show the incredulous world the noble change that I have purposed.”  Reassured by his son’s promise to rule wisely and well, King Henry IV dies, and Hal becomes King Henry V.

V.v.52-56

Falstaff: “My king! My Jove! I speak to thee, my heart!”

Prince: “I know thee not, old man. Fall to thy prayers.

How ill white hairs become a fool and jester!

I have long dreamt of such a kind of man,

So surfeit-swelled, so old, and so profane;

But being awak’d, I do despise my dream.”

Falstaff assumes his greatest wish has come true—his criminal protégé, the young prince, has become the new king, and he will surely give Sir John total freedom and license to indulge his many, many appetites.  This has been Falstaff’s plan and expectation since the beginning of Henry IV, Part I, and now at the end of Part II, he celebrates the rise of his “sweet boy” to the throne.  But this turns out to be the moment when Falstaff’s wishes are not only dashed but utterly annihilated in five cold, cutting lines of verse.  The newly crowned King repudiates everything having to do with Falstaff, using language that echoes a famous biblical warning against dreams in Psalm 73:20: “They are like a dream when one awakes, on awaking you despise their phantoms.” (RSV)  This particular psalm asks God why He allows wicked people to prosper in the world, and the psalmist concludes that God will eventually cause them to fall into ruin and be swept away, just as wispy dreams disappear in the light of morning.  The new king casts Falstaff in this biblical mold, and in so doing he both rejects Sir John and identifies himself as a traditional, righteous king who is a vigorous man of action, not a dreamer.  Even though he admits that this man has been a long-time presence in his life, Henry V is now focused entirely on his duties to the future.

As the play ends, I cannot help asking: will the new king suffer the same deep psychological damage, the same painful alienation from his sleeping and dreaming self, that plagued the old king?

Dreams and Shakespeare: Henry IV Part I

Dreams and Shakespeare: Henry IV Part I by Kelly Bulkeley

Sleep is both a gentle source of earthly pleasure and a stressful battlefield of military violence in Shakespeare’s stirring portrait of a young Prince.

The play opens with Henry IV, the 15th century English King, planning his military strategy against various enemies who are threatening rebellion.  One of the rebel leaders is Henry “Hotspur” Percy, the Earl of Northumberland’s valiant son whose battlefield exploits have become legendary.  As the King reflects on Hotspur’s noble deeds, he cannot ignore the painful contrast with his own unruly, disobedient son, Prince Henry or “Hal,” who wastes his time in “riot and dishonor” with a lowlife gang of drunkards, thieves, and scoundrels.  The King’s first mention of his child is a wish to be rid of him:

O that it could be proved

That some night-tripping fairy had exchanged

In cradle clothes our children where they lay,

And called mine Percy, and his Plantagenet!

Then I would have his Harry, and he mine. (I.i.88-92)

In many cultures around the world, including early modern England, people have been terrified by the evil spirits that strike infants in their sleep.  To protect their children, parents have used prayers, rituals, amulets, and holy artifacts to ward off the malevolent beings who attack newborns during the dark of night.  In this context, it would be shocking for a parent to actively wish that a “night-tripping fairy” would come to steal his true child.  By so wishing, the King reveals the cruel extremity of his detachment from young Henry.

The next scene introduces Prince Hal’s scurrilous but intimate group of friends, led by Sir John Falstaff, a man of grand humor and bottomless appetites.  Hal’s first words make this clear: “Thou art so fat-witted, with drinking of old sack and unbuttoning thee after supper and sleeping upon benches after noon” (I.ii.2-4).  Here is a neat list of Falstaff’s chief vices, which include a gluttonous desire for sleep.  Falstaff enjoys sleeping for the same reason he enjoys drinking and whoring—they feel good.  But he denies the Prince’s moral condemnation of his chosen way of life, now and in the future:

“When thou art King, let not us that are squires of the night’s body be called thieves of the day’s beauty. Let us be Diana’s foresters, gentlemen of the shade, minions of the moon; and let men say we be men of good government, being governed as the sea is, by our noble and chaste mistress the moon, under whose countenance we steal.” (I.ii.23-30)

Dreams and Shakespeare: Henry IV Part I by Kelly Bulkeley

Even though Falstaff is speaking in prose, his words have a roguish poetry.  He casts himself as a member of a mystical lunar guild; he breaks the laws of the daytime not because he is a base criminal, but because he is a true and faithful servant of the “mistress the moon.”

Hal knows that Falstaff is no such thing, but he also knows the fun of hanging around with Falstaff is listening to him spin out absurd stories and fanciful lies.  Even more fun is playing a trick on Falstaff to provoke his boundless capacity for creative falsehoods.  Such an opportunity arises when Poins, a renowned highway robber, arrives and tells them of an excellent opportunity for profitable thievery.  A group of rich pilgrims will be traveling on a nearby road in the pre-dawn darkness, and it would be easy to ambush them and separate them from their valuables.  Poins declares, “We may do it as secure as sleep” (I.ii.132-133).

This analogy emphasizes the simplicity of the plan.  Just as it’s easy to go to sleep, it will be easy to rob the pilgrims.  Falstaff accepts this metaphorical reasoning, given how quickly and comfortably he can fall sleep (more on this in a moment).  Yet the analogy has another layer of meaning that Falstaff does not recognize, of sleep as a descent into a world of darkness and disorientation with strange reversals of identity and startling discoveries of truth and deception.  Falstaff doesn’t know it, but Poins soon confides to Hal that the real plan is to trick Falstaff during the robbery.  To be “as secure as sleep” will turn out to be not very secure at all.

Dreams and Shakespeare: Henry IV Part I by Kelly Bulkeley

What ensues is one of the greatest scenes in literature as Hal and the other “minions of the moon” banter with Falstaff while he tells his thrilling, heroic, and completely fictional account of what happened during the robbery.  The Prince shares the old rogue’s giddy joy in his fanciful flights of imagination.  Despite their radical differences in age and station, they have this creative pleasure in common.  Their playful battles of wit generate an exuberant vitality that enlivens them both.

The jesting abruptly ends when the Sheriff arrives to inquire about the robbery.  Everyone scatters and hides while the Prince must resume his royal identity and assure the Sheriff the pilgrims will be repaid for what they have lost.  After the Sheriff has left, Hal tells Peto to find that “oily rascal.” A moment later Peto calls out, “Falstaff! Fast asleep behind the arras, and/Snorting like a horse” (II.iv.535-536).  The comedy of Peto’s discovery turns on Falstaff’s blithe lack of concern for anything but his own immediate bodily pleasure.  While the Sheriff is in that very room looking to arrest him for a capital crime, Sir John lays down in a dark place and slips into a deep, beastly slumber.  Unburdened by guilt or shame, having no ambition beyond the next bottle of sack, he is not even perturbed by Hal’s recent, ominous words about a future banishment (“I do, I will.”).  Falstaff enjoys sleep as one of the many sumptuous courses in the great feast of life, and he lets nothing distract him from consuming his fill.

At the other end of the spectrum, the relentlessly aggressive Hotspur treats sleep as another battlefield where enemies can be attacked, fought, and conquered.  In Hotspur’s opening scene he rages against the King for refusing to help his kinsman Mortimer and commanding no further discussion of it.  Hotspur imagines a nocturnal assault on the arrogant monarch:

He said he would not ransom Mortimer,

Forbade my tongue to speak of Mortimer,

But I will find him when he lies asleep,

And in his ear I’ll hollo ‘Mortimer.’” (I.iii.235-236)

Dreams and Shakespeare: Henry IV Part I by Kelly Bulkeley

He may threaten to attack the King during sleep, but it’s Hotspur himself who has the most troubled slumber of anyone in the play.  His wife, Lady Kate, asks him why he is so agitated and disturbed: “Tell me, sweet lord, what is’t that takes from thee/Thy stomach, pleasure, and thy golden sleep?” (II.iii.41-42)  In contrast to Falstaff, Hotspur has lost all of his normal physical appetites.  Lady Kate goes on to describe in sorrowful detail the frightening spectacle of her husband’s sleeping body:

In thy faint slumbers I by thee have watched,

And heard thee murmur tales of iron wars,

Speak terms of manage to thy bounding steed,

Cry ‘Courage! to the field!’ And thou has talked

Of sallies and retires, of trenches, tents,

Of palisades, frontiers, parapets,

Of basilisks, of cannon, culverin,

Of prisoners’ ransom, and of soldiers slain,

And all the currents of a heady fight.

Thy spirit within thee hath been so at war,

And thus hath so bestirred thee in thy sleep,

That beads of sweat have stood upon thy brow

Like bubbles in a late-disturbed stream,

And in thy face strange motions have appeared,

Such as we see when men restrain their breath

On some great sudden hest. O what portents are these?

Some heavy business hath my lord in hand,

And I must know it, else he loves me not. (II.iii.48-66)

Dreams and Shakespeare: Henry IV Part I by Kelly Bulkeley

Lady Kate’s account opens a window into the war-obsessed, hyper-militarized mind of Hotspur.  Fighting is all he thinks about, day and night, in waking and sleeping.  Her description of his physical reactions have aspects of both sleep paralysis and night terrors, which are often triggered by frightening or unsettling situations in waking life.  His behavior may even reflect the repetitive nightmares symptomatic of post-traumatic stress disorder; his wartime experiences would have given him plenty of raw material.  But Lady Kate is trying to emphasize how frightening it is for her to watch her beloved endure such unconscious torments—he’s sweating, he can’t breathe, he’s in obvious distress.  Her plea for him to tell her what’s wrong is a plea for him to recognize the painful impact of his nocturnal suffering on her.

This passage offers the closest approximation of a full dream report available in the play.  Dreams are mentioned elsewhere twice in turns of phrase (“that thou dreamst not of,” II.i.69-70; “before not dreamt of,” IV.i.78) meant to emphasize something that’s vitally important yet beyond normal reckoning.  Hotspur at one point says he hates foolish talk about “the dreamer Merlin and his prophecies” (III.i.161).  Besides that, the only other reference to dreaming is indirect, in the pre-battle scene where the rebel lords take leave of their ladies.  Mortimer’s wife, who can only speak Welsh, invites her husband to enjoy a final, private reverie together:

She bids you on the wanton rushes lay you down

And rest your gentle head upon her lap,

And she will sing the song that pleaseth you

And on your eyelid crown the god of sleep,

Charming your blood with pleasing heaviness,

Making such difference ‘twixt wake and sleep

As is the difference betwixt day and night

The hour before the heavenly-harnessed team

Begins his golden progress in the east (III.i.230-239)

Dreams and Shakespeare: Henry IV Part I by Kelly Bulkeley

This is a beautiful image of sensual slumber, and one of the most poignant moments in the play.  A woman who cannot speak her husband’s language offers to ease him into a lyrical space of soothing comfort, away from the sharp edges of waking reality.  Indeed, I wonder if she is subtly helping him incubate a dream to guide him in the coming battle. The liminal state she is trying to evoke, just before dawn when sleep is about to yield to waking, is in fact the time when the human brain typically enters its peak phase of REM sleep, generating the highest frequency of remembered dreams.

What about Prince Henry?  How will he sleep and dream?  We do not know yet.  He is still unformed, his identity still in the process of becoming.  He has two more plays to go.  Will he learn from Falstaff and the “gentlemen of the shade” to sleep easily and well, or will he fall prey like Hotspur to the wrenching, inescapable violence of a militarized dreamscape?

####

 

Contemporary performances:

Dreams and Shakespeare: Henry IV Part I by Kelly Bulkeley

Last week I saw a powerful production of Henry IV Part I at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland, with Daniel Jose Molina as the young Prince, G. Valmont Thomas as Falstaff, and Alejandra Escalante as Hotspur.  The scenes with Molina and Thomas were magical; at several points in their comedic jousting I had tears of laughter running down my cheeks.  The intimate space of the Thomas Theater enabled both actors to draw the audience into their merry band of criminal conspirators, making everyone feel a part of their antics, adventures, and jests.  I truly lost track of time during the riotous fourth scene of Act II.  When the Sheriff suddenly arrived it felt like a harsh and unwanted intrusion into our fun times, like an alarm clock jarring us out of a good dream. A buzz-kill, in other words.

The casting of Escalante as Hotspur gave a fresh look at Shakespeare’s classic portrait of a young warrior, inflamed with a righteous rage for vengeance.  Escalante’s intense performance decoupled Hotspur’s aggression from gender, which is perhaps another way of saying her performance humanized this aspect of Hotspur’s character. I found the effect especially strong in the scene where Lady Kate (played by Nemuna Ceesay) described Hotspur’s frightening behaviors in sleep.  Escalante and Ceesay had a vibrant and mutual romantic rapport that seemed to subtly change these lines from a shameful revelation of cowardly fear into an honest admission of the burden of fighting to uphold one’s ideals.  Instead of driving them apart, this deeply emotional exchange brought them closer together.

 

Note: this essay first appeared in the Huffington Post on April 18, 2017.

Dreaming and Theater: A Dynamic Connection

Dreaming and Theater: A Dynamic Connection by Kelly BulkeleyIn August of 1991 I joined a group of dream researchers from the U.S. and Western Europe on a journey to Golitsyno, a conference center just outside Moscow in the former Soviet Union, where we planned to meet several Soviet researchers for a gathering organized by Jungian analyst Robert Bosnak.  Just hours after our plane landed in Moscow on August 19, the airport was suddenly shut down by the Red Army; a military coup against the Soviet president, Mikhail Gorbachev, had begun.  All communications with the outside world were cut off.  Our only source of information was the state television, which offered nothing of substance and simply told everyone to stay calm. Alas, we didn’t.  As heavy tanks and armored personnel carriers rumbled through the streets, our jet-lagged brains struggled to process a surreal mix of fear, disorientation, and uncertainty about where this violent rebellion might lead.

But we had come to Golitsyno to talk about dreams, so that’s what we did, as reality itself took on a strangely dream-like quality.  Amid the various lectures and panel discussions, the most memorable session by far was a workshop on dream theater.  One person shared a dream, the rest of us chose a role to play based on an element from the dream–e.g., a character, object, setting, or emotion–and then we all performed the dream as a group, with the dreamer as the audience.  The process brought out incredible moments of insight, collaboration, creativity, and much-needed comic relief.  We were connecting with each other in a way none of the other conference sessions had allowed.  The attendees spoke a dozen different languages, so every verbal exchange involved a slow and laborious system of translation.  But here in the dream theater, we could act and react to each other immediately, spontaneously, right in the moment.  We found the best way to make sense of a world teetering on the brink of chaos was to play with each other’s dreams.

Dreaming and Theater: A Dynamic Connection by Kelly Bulkeley

Among the many vivid impressions from Golitsyno, this workshop gave me a deep and lasting curiosity about the oneiric dimensions of live dramatic performance.  Plays are collective dreams. That has been my hypothesis ever since.  A live theatrical show provides a magical space where people can dream together, where shared imaginal experiences can be created, enjoyed, explored, and amplified.  

Dreaming and Theater: A Dynamic Connection by Kelly Bulkeley

It turns out this hypothesis has a long history in the psychology of dreaming.  When Carl Jung (1875-1961) taught classes on dream analysis to graduate students at the University of Zurich in the late 1930’s, he told them to start the interpretation of a dream by treating it as the personal theater of the dreamer.  Many dreams have a “dramatic structure” that directly parallels the structure of a theatrical play.  Jung showed his students how to identify four elements commonly found in stage dramas: 1) the locale, where the dream is set and who is present as a character; 2) the exposition, what kind of problem motivates the characters and launches the plot; 3) the peripeteia, how the plot unfolds and changes over time; and 4) the lysis, how the plot ends, with or without a clear resolution.  Analyzing a dream in these terms does not automatically produce a definitive, unambiguous answer.  That was never Jung’s goal.  Rather, his theatrically inspired approach was aimed at opening up new vistas for interpretative inquiry, highlighting potentials for creative growth while making sure the meanings stay grounded in the dreamer’s lived experience.

Dreaming and Theater: A Dynamic Connection by Kelly Bulkeley

The Gestalt psychologist Frederick Perls (1893-1970) took Jung’s approach a step further.  In his workshops and seminars Perls taught his students to reimagine dreaming as a theater of their own minds: “Every part, every situation in a dream is a creation of the dreamer… Every aspect of it is a part of the dreamer, but a part that to some extent is disowned and projected onto other objects.”  Perls emphasized the value of dreams in helping us become more aware of the alienated parts of our psyche, with the goal of eventually embracing those detached elements in a greater whole: “Dreamwork is the royal road to integration.”  By “dreamwork,” Perls meant a process of live psychodrama very similar to what we practiced in Golitsyno.  He asked for the dreamer to narrate his or her experience in the present tense, like a story happening right now, because “we want to bring the dream back to life.”  He gave the dreamer the title of “stage director” for an impromptu dramatic recreation of the dream, with various members of the group serving as characters, settings, and props.  Perls encouraged the performers to engage in spontaneous dialogues, the better to highlight unconscious projections and alienated parts of the psyche.

The dream theater method my colleagues and I learned in Golitsyno was not as directive and goal-driven as Perls’ approach, which focused on the therapeutic effects of provoking confrontations and reconciliations among the various elements of the dream.  Our practice was more open-ended, exploratory, and self-guided; it was not therapy, although it felt deeply therapeutic for many of us.

In his 1984 book Film and the Dream Screen, the literary critic Robert Eberwein used psychoanalytic language to account for the dream-like qualities of watching a movie.  Drawing on Freud’s theory that dreams reveal our earliest childhood memories of total fusion with reality, before there were boundaries between self and other, Eberwein claimed:

“Our experience of film permits us to return to the state of perceptual unity that we first participated in as infants and that we can know as dreamers. The ‘sleep’ in our experience of film, that is, will be seen to return us to the primal sense of unity with our dreams. As a result, we are able to watch and feel a sense of involvement in the images on the screen, the distinction between res cogitans (the mind) and res extensa (external reality) having dissolved as we enter into the oneiric world of film.”   

I don’t entirely agree with his views of early child development (humans are relational beings from the start), but I do believe Eberwein’s approach is helpful in highlighting a powerful dimension of dreaming energy that becomes activated when watching a movie.  Indeed, I believe this argument can be made even more strongly in relation to attending a live theatrical performance, where the visceral immediacy of the drama comes closer than any other art form to invoking the startling beauty and electric intensity of an actual dream.  In a play, the audience and actors share an imaginal space they create and hold together.  Within this space, a story emerges that grows and takes a unique shape according to their dynamic interactions during the performance–the live presence of the actors intensifying the emotional responses of the audience, and the live presence of the audience stimulating the creative talents of the actors.  The best plays are like the best dreams: surprising, decentering, mind-expanding, awe-inspiring, emotionally exhausting, and acutely memorable.  They are unreal, yet realer than real; retreats into fantasy that catapult us into fresh engagement with the world.

Dreaming and Theater: A Dynamic Connection by Kelly Bulkeley

Last year I joined the board of directors of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland, Oregon, where some of the greatest theater on the planet is being created and performed.  From February to November, eleven plays (usually 4-5 by Shakespeare, one big musical, and the rest original commissions for OSF) are presented in three interconnected theaters.  The 2017 season performances began a few weeks ago, and just recently the 2018 season was announced, with favorable attention to OSF’s passionate commitment to presenting plays, both classic and new, that reflect the full range and diversity of the world in which we live today.  I’m very excited to do what I can to support the members of this amazing artistic community as they weave dreams and cast dramaturgical spells that transport audiences into imaginative spheres of beauty, wonder, and fiercely relevant insight.

 

Notes:

I wrote more about the Golitsyno experiences in a chapter titled “Dreaming in Russia, August 1991,” in my 1999 book Visions of the Night (SUNY Press).  My roommate at the conference center, Michael Dupre, wrote about his experiences in a 1992 article titled “Russia. Dreaming. Liberation.” (Dreaming 2(2): 123-134).

The Jung quotes come from the 2010 book Children’s Dreams (Princeton University Press).

The Perls quotes come from the 1970 book Gestalt Therapy Now (Harper).

In a future post I will write in more detail about the work of Robert Bosnak, who organized the “Dreaming in Russia” conference and who has done extensive work connecting dreams and theater, and Janet Sonenberg, who wrote the 2003 book Dreamwork for Actors and who has worked with Bosnak in theatrical contexts.

This essay first appeared in the Huffington Post on April 4, 2017, and has been slightly revised.